School spirit | OPINION: Melinda Ruley | Indy Week
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"There's just one thing," Royce says over the thump thump thump of the big rawhide drum. "If you write about me, don't say I'm part Native American. I don't like that word, that's a bogus word. You can say I'm part Indian."

"Agreed," I say.

"Oh yeah," he continues, a twinkle commencing in the depths of his eyes. "And don't say I'm here to explore my roots or anything like that."

"Why are you here?"

Royce nods toward a group of women wearing fringed mocassins, feathers bobby-pinned into their hair. He glances at me, the dancing look unmistakable now. He's messing with me, a minor transgression given the bright day, the currents of mischief in the spring air. One of the women looks our way, smoothing her dress. Royce hunches his shoulders, leans toward me in a burlesque of confidentiality. "I'm here," he whispers, "to look at the pretty girls."

I meet Royce at Harris Field at N.C. State University. We've both come to watch the 14th annual powwow sponsored by the student chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Office of Native American Student Affairs. It's a windy, ear-achey day in April; performers who have come to commemorate the summer gatherings of Plains tribes cast a doubtful eye at the racing clouds, and exhibitors ringing the field struggle to anchor their wares against the strong gusts. I arrive early with my children and the three of us, shivering and noticeably pale-faced, gamely examine the dream catchers and peace pipes, passing time before the dancing begins.

It's worth the wait. Men circle the huge drums, beating out elaborate bass rhythms over which the wailing yodel of their songs soar. The dancers enter the circle, feathered, tassled, beaded, belled. There are Lumbee, Waccamaw-Siouan, Coharie, Haliwa-Saponini, jingle dancers, grass dancers, fancy shawl dancers, warriors. Each keeps the beat according to his or her dance--exuberant or somber, playful or prayerful, but it is all moving, as genuine powwows always are. This is what my children have come for--this unselfconscious display of heritage, stripped of the dross and detritus of contemporary America. "Real Indians," is how they put it, and they hunker in their chairs to watch the pageant in rapt silence.

I've come to the powwow for another reason, though, to conduct an unscientific poll on the use of Indian mascots at public schools. The controversy over these mascots, though long-simmering, has lately been brought to boil by activists hoping to erase Braves, Redskins, Warriors and Red Raiders from team uniforms and yearbooks. In the last several years, the issue has caught the attention of the N.C. State Board of Education, which mandates annual reviews of the curricular and psychological effects of using Indian mascots, but falls short of an outright ban.

The most recent boil is the work of the N.C. Mascot Education and Action group, which this year has pressured several state schools, from the Manteo Elementary Little Braves to the Mighty Sauras of South Stokes High, to "retire" their Indian mascots. The group, which argues that Indian mascots are racist and culturally abusive, has gotten results. Three months ago the Guilford County School Board ordered both the Southern Guilford Indians and the Andrews High School Red Raiders to do away with their mascots. And just this week, Charlotte's West Mecklenburg High School announced it will remove all Indian imagery from its campus, change the name of the school's Bow & Arrow newspaper and erase the spear and feather from the gym floor.

Not everyone is happy with the changes. Although many Indian and non-Indian activists say the mascots demean a struggling culture and inflict psychological trauma on Indian children grasping for identity, others bristle at the accusation of racism and insist the mascots are symbols of honor, respect and even old friendships between local Indians and white settlers. (There are no Indian mascots in Triangle schools, a consequence, perhaps, of less amiable relations.)

Talking with people at the powwow, I get a variety of opinions. When I repeat the argument that the mascots are an expression of respect, I get more than a few arched eyebrows. (That's right, I say to myself in the awkward silence that follows. White people take your land, murder your children, pave over your sacred places and shunt you off to reservations. But when we paint a warrior on the gym walls, that's respect.)

There are other reactions, though. "I was a Webb High Warrior," one white man says. "I always thought of it as a sign of respect. I don't see the problem; it wasn't no racism to it." But a woman whose nephew went to Manteo High tells me she was disturbed by the school's Redskins logo. "To me," she said, "a Redskin is a bloody scalp that somebody turned over for a bounty. I can't see the respect in that." Another woman nods, but stopped short of agreeing with a mandatory ban. "My grandfather was Cherokee," she says, "but he would have been too proud to pay attention to that kind of thing. It's a shame on the white people, is all it is. You hear all this hand-wringing about the plight of Indians, then you see people go doing that tomahawk chop. It's like they don't know they're hurting real people."

That, to me, is the most interesting observation of the day, and I bring it to Royce, who has abandoned the women and settled himself on some nearby steps with a Coke and a bag of chips. He nods and says, "I think what it is is that around here there just aren't that many Indians compared to other places in the country, so people don't have the exposure, the chance to have friends who are Indians, that kind of thing. So there's all this theoretical respect for them, but not for the actual person.

"My cousin," Royce continues, "grew up out West, and he'll tell you it's real different. There's just lots more Indians, so white people'll be your friend. But then they're always talking about the quote-unquote Indian problem, you know, welfare and land and all that."

I think I know what he means. Here in the South, and especially the Southeast, race is the proverbial elephant in the room, but prejudice against black Americans has always been influenced by their presence on the physical and emotional landscape of whites. Black people have always been part of the donnee, and if there were Black Sambos and yard jockeys there were also, depending on your era and income bracket, the kids who sat next to you in school, gardeners, colleagues, maids, neighbors. I still remember the black girl who sat crying in science class after a pack of white boys followed her down the hall, whispering threats. Our Raleigh junior high had just been integrated, and my own exposure to black children had to that point been fairly limited. But I'd been teased by bullies, too, and when that girl slumped in her chair and put her head in her hands she stopped being "colored" and became a kid just like me.

I'm not promoting the old cliche of the devoted retainer or suggesting that racism in the South hasn't been marked by untellable brutality. Only that prejudice in these parts has frequently walked hand-in-hand with grudging regard, an affection born of nearness. Whether these attachments clouded the water or hastened progress is for others to parse out, but certainly they have shaped the expression of racism.

Which is why, in Piedmont North Carolina, there is so much genuine confusion about the impact of Indian mascots. Indians aren't the elephant in the closet, they're scarcely shadows on the horizon; this despite the increased presence of several local tribes. There was one Indian kid that I knew of in my North Raleigh elementary school (and doubtless many I didn't know), but he hardly made a point of his racial heritage and he hung out with "bad boys," troublemakers, outcasts. By high school he was gone, and nobody wondered where. Oh, we all knew about Indians, all right. They were the ones who broke bread with the pilgrims, the last to see the Lost Colonists, the thorn in the side of Andrew Jackson. They were Tonto and Tiger Lily and the sad, dignified man on TV commercials who cried at all the litter. They were Cher on a pinto pony, wearing skimpy buckskin and singing "Half-Breed."

And that was about it. By the mid-20th century our landscape had been wiped too clean, too long ago, by events we knew only as items on a history test: The Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, Clingman's Dome. The American Indian was a distant icon, like a Viking or a pirate, imbued with traits long since discarded by the advance of civilization. It was the kind of distance--is the kind of distance--that allows for veneration, contempt or dull indifference. I'd wager all three are evoked by Indian mascots. I can't remember if my high school played Louisburg High, or whether any of us was disrespectful of their Warrior mascot. I'm guessing, though, that no one would have given the issue much thought one way or the other. There was no one to cast a shadow on our conscience, no one to make it human for us.

At the powwow, the jingle dancers are circling the field, their dresses festooned with bell-shaped trinkets that make a soft crashing sound like pie tins in the wind. Legend has it that when a medicine man's granddaughter became sick it came to him in a dream to make a dress that shone and jingled, and the dress would heal the girl. The dress was made and the child brought into the dance ring, so ill she had to be carried. By the third circle she could walk alone; by the fourth she could dance.

While we are watching, a little boy named Jamal runs up and asks my son if he wants to play. Jamal and his sister, who have performed in these events in the past, run up a small hill above the field and begin dancing. It emerges, amazingly, that they go to the same elementary school I went to, though the sister, noting my advanced age, assures me gently that it's changed a lot.

My son follows them up the slope and watches carefully, to catch the beat. He is too shy to throw himself into it, but for a moment the two little boys, one black-headed, one blonde, dance to the thump thump thump of the rawhide drum and the healing chimes of the jingle dance, warriors of the same tribe. EndBlock


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